The Rudy Schwartz Project Tied Up in Knotts

by Ken Leick The monstrous four-by-six-foot poster over Joe Newman's bed proudly bears the legend "The Love God" in six-inch letters. The display is not a sexual boast, however, and in fact one would suspect that its presence would hinder rather than spur on any hanky panky in the area. The poster, you see, is a dry-mounted, pristine mint copy of the one-sheet for Don Knotts' 1969 film The Love God, and it sports a large portrait of the diminutive funnyman wearing a colorful daishiki. It's a jarring bit of boudoir decor and just one example of the parade of Knotts memorabilia displayed throughout Newman's Central Austin home, rivaled only in number by the images of Frank Zappa that line the walls. It's a frightening thought, but a collaboration between Knotts and Zappa, had it ever occurred, might well have come close to the type of music that Newman spews forth to the world as the Rudy Schwartz Project. Newman is a quiet, unassuming man in his early thirties who spends his days performing feats of Software Engineering. He would probably be described by his neighbors the same way that serial murderers tend to be remembered after the fact: "He kept to himself, and seemed like a nice enough guy..." In point of fact, though, Newman is considered by some to be far more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill mass murderer; his music, which he performs and produces largely by himself, dares to poke fun at religion, politics, and ignorance. Worse, it dares to be both incisive and funny. His new CD, Günther Packs a Stiffy, even dares attack the venerable
Dallas Cowboys and sports fans in general. Uh-oh. There goes the neighborhood.

In his youth in rural Missouri, Newman's early taste in music mostly ran along the lines of what he now refers to as "stadium shit rock" like Queen and Led Zeppelin; he lost his virginity to the soothing strains of Led Zep III on eight-track in the back seat of his parents' Pontiac Grand Ville. When he went on to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, however, he "was fortunate enough to end up in a dorm full of freaks," where he was introduced to the more eclectic sounds of Gong, Funkadelic, and most notably, Zappa's Chunga's Revenge album. He moved to Houston for a year and a half and thence to Austin, while his tastes continued to broaden and warp to include strange and off-center acts like Spike Jones and the Bonzo Dog Band, and the films of drekmeisters like Ed Wood.

Newman got his first taste of what it was like to make music in Austin as a member of the Politicians in the early Eighties. The satirical group also included Dave Irwin, current Liquid Mice/Robot Group wizard Brooks Coleman, and main songwriter Gregg Leinwebber. "We were pretty bad," Newman recalls; "some people were horrified by what we did, some liked it, and most got up and left - like with any other band." It didn't take long before Newman decided he wanted to try his hand at songwriting himself, and in 1985 he bought one of the four-track portable studios that had just become cheaply available at the time.

As luck would have it, this was about the time Daniel Johnston had begun making a name for himself hawking homemade tapes on the street and selling cassettes on consignment in local independent record stores. Following Johnston's lead, Newman headed into Record Exchange (now Sound Exchange) on the Drag with a little collection of songs he had recorded called Moslem Beach Party. Among the ditties on the hit-and-miss collection were a rude Prince parody ("Raspberry IUD") and a seemingly endless jam of "Polly Wolly Doodle." It was the sacrilegiously catchy, Tom Lehrer-type zealot's anthem entitled "Kill for God" that was the gem of the lot, however. In deadly earnest voice, sung as though through a Forties radio microphone, Newman mercilessly, if somewhat crudely, accosted extremisits of both the Moslem ("I'll use pipe bombs, what the fuck/Killing Hebrews brings good luck") and Christian ("Fuck those pagans, they're such cynics/Let's bomb the abortion clinics") faiths. The foundation had been laid; the Rudy Schwartz Project was set in motion. Akin to nothing so much as a Carl Stalling for the Nineties, Newman began developing a style that quotes liberally from the musics of his heroes, serving up a hash of Zappa, Monk, seventies AOR tripe, and obscure cult film soundtracks.

Since then, the number of Rudy Schwartz tapes has climbed to seven (MBP; Plastic Containers Retain Odors; Bowling For Appliances; Salmon Dave; Don't Get Charred, Get Puffy; Yodelin' Satan; and Enhanced Florence Henderson), production quality has risen to a professional level, and music magazines like Option and Sound Choice have taken notice of his work. Just as importantly, Newman's music has led him into the company of kindred souls like Jello Biafra, Dr. Demento, Zoogz Rift, and Subgenius Church maven Rev. Ivan Stang. Demento has played some of Newman's less controversial material on his nationally syndicated radio show, Rift helped him get a CD deal with obscure German label Musical Tragedies, and Stang (who performs dialogue from the wretched Larry Buchanan movie Down On Us on Enhanced Florence Henderson) put in a good word about the Project to controversial cut-and-paste California music montagists Negativland. They decided to release Günther Packs a Stiffy on their private Seeland Records label. As for playing live, the career of the Rudy Schwartz Project as a live act was quite literally ephemeral. "Some prick in L.A. said he would fly us out there to do some shows with fIREHOSE if I assembled a band," says Newman, but after he did so and conducted months of intensive practice, the gigs never materialized, so the band's entire performance career consisted of a single brief opening set for Brave Combo at Liberty Lunch in 1990. Newman has no interest in repeating the experience. With the Project existing as a break-even endeavor at best, and no great piles of money coming in from the music, Newman eventually tired of the whole ordeal, and sold all his musical equipment.

Ironically, Newman has become much more visible since giving up on the Project. The Günther CD has a wider circulation than any of his previous works, his own music and his voluminous collection of obscure compositions has made him a popular guest deejay on local public radio, and through the magic of the Internet, he and wrestling promoter/dadaist musician
Zoogz Rift have become international superhighway terrorists, flooding the Zappa newsgroups with loquacious, rambling diatribes about Dean Martin, infuriating the readers of by pestering them with endless anecdotes about Anthony Newley, and popping up in various sites asking for nude photos of Richard Nixon. At last, Joe Newman is doing the things he likes to do. And he's still such a good, quiet neighbor. n

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